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The Pedal Steel Guitar Association

40Years of Steel Players Helping Steel Players

by Bob Maickel

In July of 1973 a small group of New York City area steel players assembled at my home to discuss the possibility of forming an organization whose primary purpose would be to share information on playing the steel guitar and in particular the pedal steel guitar. There was no formal teaching method widely available at the time and teachers were few and far between.

To give proper credit, Tom Bradshaw first proposed such an idea when he was writing a column for Guitar Player magazine in the late 60's. Tom again proposed the formation of a Pedal Steel Guitar Association in 1973; unfortunately he did not have the time to follow up on his idea. He did however provide lists of names and addresses of players who might be interested in undertaking such a venture. I had entertained the idea of such an organization for some time, even though it seemed highly impractical. I knew only a handful of steel players in my area. Bob Grossman was appointed by Tom to act as a national coordinator whose job would be to put interested players in regional areas in touch with each other. I volunteered to coordinate the New York area. This resulted in my receiving the names of six individuals, two of whom were very close by. The time was right!

I contacted the people I knew and those whose names I had received from Bradshaw and Grossman. Those original "founding members" included Jim Hand, Barr Hibbs, Barry Horowitz, Dennis Lipter, Frenchy Messier, Mike Ursitti, and myself. We talked for hours about playing the steel guitar and about forming an association. We agreed that any such organization would have to be non-profit, open for membership to all who were sincerely interested in the instrument, whether they played it or not, and that we would disseminate information about pedal steel through a newsletter and steel guitar workshops.

Barr Hibbs, who was also a banjo aficionado, volunteered to draw up a charter for the organization and have it ready for presentation in the near future. We unanimously agreed to continue to meet informally until such time as we had enough potential members to make the idea of an association worth while. We didn't have to wait long! In August we met in Frenchy's garage. About twenty guys showed up; many brought their guitars and amps. Art Alifano traveled all the way from Albany, New York ( about 100 miles) with a working model of his new changer mechanism used on the Evano pedal steel guitar. (Evano, which never went into production was a combination of names, Alifano and Evans, for Art and noted player Buzz Evans) The garage looked like a showroom for pedal steel guitars. Nearly every major brand was represented. What a sight!

After some discussion, it was agreed that a formal association should be formed. We chose the date for the next meeting and vowed to make it official. Meanwhile everyone took turns playing and a mini jam session took place which kept Frenchy's neighbors entertained into the wee hours of the morning.

Jim Hand played host to the group in September. He gave an excellent demonstration of his tunings and pedal setup. Midway through the meeting, the doorbell rang and a contingent from Connecticut arrived under the leadership of Tom Reilly of Norwalk. This increased the attendance to thirty players. Most of them had not been to the previous meeting. The charter was presented and accepted as read. The provisions of the charter were then carried out, commencing with the interim election of officers as follows: Bob Maickel president, Frenchy Messier vice president, Barr Hibbs treasurer and Barry Horowitz secretary. Simultaneously, the name Northeast Pedal Steel Guitar Association was chosen to accommodate the attendees from the different areas. Dues were collected which enabled us to get things going. It was agreed that the charter would be up for ratification at the January 1974 meeting, enabling us to have a uniform fiscal year.

One of the nagging problems was accommodating such a large group in someone's home. The October workshop featured Bill Keith, who was writing a pedal steel book with Winnie Winston. We held the workshop at Barr Hibbs's apartment in Brooklyn, NY. This was a departure from the previous Long Island locations and was in the heart of New York City. After such an excellent presentation of style and playing technique it became obvious that we would need a large public place to accommodate more people. Jim Hand to the rescue!

Jim played every Saturday night at the Stage Coach Inn in Huntington, N.Y. which is about twenty five miles east of New York City on Long Island. The proprietor, John Breitfeller (may he rest in peace), thought it would be a nice idea to have our group meet at his establishment each month, so we started meeting there in November, 1973. This solution helped us immensely and cost nothing. The Stagecoach (which has recently been sold) was a nice club and John gave us use of the private room complete with P.A. system, bandstand, instrument amps, set of drums, drummer (Bob Campbell) and accommodations for about one hundred people. Our prayers were answered! John Breitfeller and Bob Campbell did so much to help us get started that we made them honorary members, even though neither of them played steel guitar.

We were really off and rolling! Bradshaw and Grossman came through with a lot more names, as did members already enrolled. The officers planned their strategy: present some of the Association's better players at workshops so that beginners and professional players alike could learn and expand their ideas. There was a lot of work to be done and fortunately we had the right combination of people who were willing to sacrifice their free time to get the job done.

Our treasurer, Barr Hibbs, took the responsibility of opening a bank account to deposit dues received, setting up books, and all the other tedious tasks of his office.

Vice-President Frenchy Messier went about the task of contacting steel companies and well-known players to advise of our existence. We were fortunate to have Frenchy's teaching experience to aid beginners in our membership. Through his "Spotlight On Technique" column in the newsletter and his workshops for beginners in December of '73 and June of '74, a lot of new steelers were helped in their quest for knowledge of how to play pedal steel.

Our Secretary and Newsletter editor, Barry Horowitz, was preparing for publication of our newsletter. This was not an easy task since no one had published a pedal steel newsletter before. Finding a good offset printer at prices we could afford was just one of the many problems. Barry had some prior experience in publishing, but he would be the first to admit that he learned a lot by doing.

Dennis Lipter, our membership chairman, had his hands full keeping the roster of members, acting as Sergeant-at-Arms at the workshops, and generally offering his services for just about anything at all. Dennis, the youngest of the group, was a college student. He had been playing pedal steel, with no formal instruction or help from anyone, for about a year prior to joining us. He had developed one of the best right hand muting techniques, using four picks, that I have ever seen. He also refused to believe that you hold the bar with the rounded end facing away, not toward you.

Let me say that back then, as well as now, some forty years later, the job of President of the Association is no easy chore. It involves donating countless hours of your free time contacting members, answering letters and telephone calls, keeping track of memberships, publication of the newsletter, conducting meetings, workshops, seminars and special Association events. The President is the official spokesperson of the organization. It sounds simple but picture yourself in the position of trying to iron out problems ranging from differences of opinion amongst members to trying to help someone solve a problem through E-mail.

It is appropriate to mention here that none of the officers or committee members of the association have ever received any compensation for their services. They volunteer their time and donate their labor and pay their dues, to keep this association running smoothly. This is the way it has always been for the past thirty five years. There have been times when these dedicated individuals have incurred out of pocket expenses for the association which were not reimbursed. This voluntary sacrifice has as its only reward the fact that the goals of the association to disseminate information about the steel guitar and to unite steel players in a way beneficial to all concerned, are being carried out. The biggest reward these volunteers receive is to watch the growth of the organization through their collective efforts with no ulterior motive.

The monthly meetings and workshops were very successful for many years. There were times when you could not even get into the front door of the Stage Coach Inn on steel guitar meeting night due to the log jam of steel players. By 1975 our membership count was several hundred. We were advised to incorporate as a non-profit educational group and change the name to the Pedal Steel Guitar Association Inc., since we had members all over the world. This was carried out as prescribed.

At about this time a change in officers took place. Clay Savage was elected Treasurer (Clay passed away in May of 1997); John De Maille, Secretary; and Jim Hand Vice-President. These volunteers gave their all to the association. Jim has since retired and moved to Louisville, Kentucky and passed away in 2011 at age 99. John De Maille was elected V.P. and Tom Higgins was elected Secretary. Frenchy moved to New Mexico, Barr Hibbs moved to California but is still a member, Dennis Lipter got his college degree, continued his education, and finally sold his steel, and Barry Horowitz was made an Honorary member for all his hard work for the association. Barry still plays steel and is in an upper managerial position at the Sam Ash Music stores. Mike Ursitti moved to Fort Myers, Florida and is active playing steel in a band. Other volunteers who have over the years unselfishly donated their time include our editor Doug Mack, Tom Higgins, Jim Hand, Tom Lopez, Mike Gross, Bill Scherer, the late Doyle Huff, Tony Madison, Kevin Macken, Kurt Kowalski, Jim Duvall, Bruce Chappelle, Clay and Lois Savage, John and Darlene De Maille, Jeff De Maio, Bob Gilmartin, Roger Trahan, John Turk, John Deitch, Don Sulesky, John Mansy, George Coleates and countless others who have helped. Our monthly workshops gradually diminished due to a lack of attendance and the ready availability of pedal steel instruction courses. For the past thirty five years we have been concentrating our efforts by putting on one big annual steel event. For the most part this has been very successful. Our shows have fearured instruction seminars by Jeff Newman and others as well as performances by just about all the famous names in steel guitar.

We have seen the membership grow from just a handful to1500+ members at last count. The reason for this growth is simple. We have a great group of dedicated steel player/enthusiasts who want to share their knowledge with each other so that we all can become better players. All PSGA members deserve a pat on the back for their continued support.